Ugh. I know. There is not a lot of love out there for The Drawer—that place where would-be novels sit and collect dust, never to see the light of day. Writers warned me about The Drawer from day one (“Yeah, that’s where your first novel will go.”), and even though they were nice about it (“Everyone’s got one [or two or three or a dozen] novels knocking around the drawer, don’t worry.”), I sort of didn’t believe that anything I wrote would end up there.
And then my first novel—the one that I poured my heart and soul into, the one that I quit my job to work on full-time—spent ten months getting nothing but a string of rejections.
Oh, and then the novel after that, which, despite being better-written than my first effort in pretty much every way, got hit with the worst possible timing ever (top tip: don’t try to sell a dystopian novel a month before The Hunger Games movie comes out).
There was nothing fun about deciding to shelve these two novels. There’s nothing fun about telling friends and family that the book they listened to you talk about for months is going exactly nowhere. Or looking back at all the days, weeks, months, years you spent on a project and calculating how much actual salary you could have earned in that time. Or wondering how often you’ll put your work and yourself out there if your dreams just get treated like monkey meat.
But I’ve always been a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” kind of person, so at some point between the inevitability of my second novel never seeing the light of day and the decision to potentially add yet another novel to the drawer, I chose to see things differently. I chose to see The Drawer not as a sign of failure, but as an opportunity to learn.
Because as worthless as I thought Novel 1 and Novel 2 were, they weren’t, in fact, wastes of time. They taught me things, like how to properly plot and how to develop characters and how to actually finish a novel and how to move on to another idea. They taught me to accept rejection gracefully (and with copious amounts of peanut butter M&Ms) and to pay attention to criticism. They taught me how to set aside something I love because to hold onto it would only hold me back.
As depressing as it is to throw away a novel, there’s something freeing about The Drawer. I mean, the whole point of putting away a project that isn’t working is so you can focus on something new and (hopefully) better. And sure, there are times when you can save a novel from The Drawer with some tough love and good editing. And yes, it is heartbreaking to say goodbye to characters and stories that you love. But learning when to stop, when to cut your losses and start again—that’s a gift.
I started my third novel with The Drawer in mind. I tempered my expectations for this novel and told myself that if I got just a slightly better query response, I’d count it as a success. And because my goal shifted from getting an agent or editor to writing a better book than the last two, I took more risks with my writing. I stopped paying attention to trends or wish-lists and wrote the novel I wanted.
Even if nothing happened with this book, I knew it would be a good, worthwhile experience, and I’d take that knowledge and put it to use on my next project (and the next one, and the one after that, until I got to the one that worked).
And maybe it was this mentality and certainly having two novels under my belt helped a lot, but in the end, that third novel’s not going into The Drawer—it’s going to be a real-life book.
I’m grateful, of course, and thrilled, but I’m also happy that it’s this novel that made it and not the other two. Because as much as I loved those two, they weren’t ready, I wasn’t ready, and neither were the right book for me to start a career with. I needed two books to figure out who I am, as a writer and a person, and the kinds of stories I want to tell. In the end, they gave me the experience necessary to write a book I’m immensely proud of.
The Drawer can be a scary place. It can be a sad place. We live and breathe with our stories, so much so that putting them away almost feels like a betrayal. I still think back to those characters and worlds and wonder what if. We all do. But how much responsibility do we really have to the stories we write? We dream them up, we live with them, we make them better, we send them into the world, and when it’s clear they’re not ready or not right, we have to take them back, put them away, and start again. That’s what The Drawer gives us: a chance to start again. And if The Drawer taught me anything, it’s that you’ve gotta let go to get better.
Kendall Kulper is the author of SALT & STORM, a Young Adult historical fantasy to be published by Little, Brown in September 2014. She grew up in the wilds of New Jersey and currently lives in Chicago (where she dreams of someday returning to the land of thin-crust pizza) with her economist husband, Dave, and Abby, her chronically-anxious Australian Shepherd.